The Synod Chapel

by John A. Abruzzese, appearing in Volume 6

Interior of the Synod Chapel, Rome, Italy. Photo by Author

On Monday, 1 October 2001, the Holy Father dedicated the new, permanent Synod Chapel, located next to the Vatican Synod Hall.  The Chapel has reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, providing synod participants with an area for adoration and prayer during the synodal assembly.  Upon arrival and before departing from the morning and evening plenary sessions, the Holy Father with his small entourage and the General Secretary make a visit to the chapel.

The design and furnishings of the synod chapel are meant to communicate and celebrate the theological concepts of collegiality and communion underlying the Synod of Bishops. Its design and furnishings draw their primary inspiration from two biblical passages: Acts 2:1-4 and John 20:19-29, which treat the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the apostolic college gathered in the Upper Room or Cenacle.

Though born at the cross, the Church has consistently taught that her initial venture into the world was accomplished on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire upon the apostles, gathered in the Cenacle, with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Since this is a particularly powerful event in the life of the episcopal college as a group, and thereby the Church, the design of the chapel wishes to recreate visually the experience of Pentecost (cf.  Acts 2:1-4).  The in-set stained-glass window in the ceiling portrays the Holy Spirit as a dove on a triangular golden field to recall the Blessed Trinity, the source of communion in the episcopate and in the Church as a whole.  The movement of the glass in various tones of red, yellow and orange high-lights the out-pouring of the Spirit in in tongues of fire which made the apostles eloquent witnesses to Christ.  Fire's property of light and heat also corresponds to enlightenment (wisdom) and courage (zeal), elements which characterized the mission of Peter and the apostles.

Statue of St. Paul. Photo by Author

According to biblical evidence, the Cenacle or Upper Room, the site of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as seen above, was also the room in which Jesus celebrated the Passover meal at which he instituted the Sacraments of the Priesthood and the Eucharist.  The setting of the Cenacle therefore is linked to the shared episcopal dignity and the principle of unity of the episcopate and the whole Church.   A central kneeler recalls the Holy Father, Successor of St. Peter, surrounded by benches and kneelers symbolizing the eleven remaining apostles.  The intention is to gather the episcopal college “in and around Peter,” yet all facing the tabernacle and the mystical presence of the Lord, who stands in the midst of the college and breathes forth his Holy Spirit on them (cf. Jn 20: 19-29).

Statue of St. Peter. Photo by author

In lighted niches at the rear of the chapel stand two bronze statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the Church of Rome.  They are symbolic of the universality of the Church in Peter’s mis-sion to the Jews and Paul’s to the Gentiles (cf.  Gal 2:7).

The frosted design on the sliding glass door of the chapel states the synodal character of the chapel, with a central mitre bearing the apostolic keys to signify Peter and eleven mitres, positioned around the central mitre, completing the symbolism of the apostolic college. To continue the theme of the unity of the apostolic college, the al-tar-support is suggestive of the prow of a boat.  The New Testament contains many passages in which a boat provides the set-ting for significant experiences for the apostles as a group.

The boat is also used as the symbol of the entire Church, oftentimes called “the Bark of Peter. ” In this sense, the cross with its bronze figure of the suffering Christ conveniently completes the mast to Peter’s humble fishing boat.  The wind-swept movement to the sculpture, including the shroud-like pieces of cloth behind the cross—a hearkening to the shroud and resurrection—is a further association with the work of the Holy Spirit, Who provides the “wind” for the sails of Peter’s Bark.

The simple bronze tabernacle bears the customary shafts of wheat and grapes for the Eucharist.  An added feature is the symbol of the fish, indicative of Peter the fisherman and the mission of the apostles as “fishers of men” (Matt 4:19; Mk 1 :17). The design is also continued in the candle-sticks and sanctuary lamp.  The fish is also the ancient symbol of Christ.

The Marian statue, entitled Our Lady of Hope, recalls Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, gathered in prayer with the Apostles in the Cenacle.  She extends her hand to marvel at the wonder of God’s grace, to welcome the flame of the love of the Holy Spirit, to nurture it so that it may burn constantly and brightly.  As true handmaiden of the Lord and His Gospel, and image of the Church, Mary is Mother of the Apostles and their successors.  In effect, the apostles, gathered around Mary in the Upper Room, were as if looking into a mirror, a mirror in which they saw their own reflection as the Church, the perfect “Bride of Christ."